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Rolling Meth Labs. A New Danger on Our Roads

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Rolling meth labs are so dangerous that a person might as well be driving with a bomb on board.

That's why police recently evacuated a swath of downtown Conyers, closed an elementary school and shut down a stretch of road late last month when police discovered ingredients used to make meth in the back of a pickup truck.

If the suspects had actively been cooking meth in a bottle at the time, the results could have been disastrous.

"If you were to take the top off real fast it would explode," said Sgt. James Carson of the Conyers Police Department. "One of these [bottles] could blow up a whole car."

A rolling meth lab, like any meth lab, involves the combination of chemicals that are volatile, explosive and potentially deadly if breathed in or ingested. And yet, homegrown production in Georgia and across the country is soaring.

The uptick is spurred by new production methods — as well as Mexico's decision to outlaw a key ingredient in the drug.

Clandestine meth lab incidents have increased by 75 percent in Georgia, from 165 in 2009 to 289 in 2010, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Nationally, the number of clandestine meth lab incidents rose 61 percent between 2007 and 2009, according to annual statistics published by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

"It is definitely a rolling biohazard with explosive material," said Melissa, an undercover narcotics detective with the Rockdale County vice unit who asked that her last name be withheld for safety reasons.

Evidence of the rise in local meth production isn't hard to find.

Cobb police stumbled on all the makings of a mobile meth lab in September after an officer stopped a Chevrolet Impala for crossing the median of a divided highway.

In Doraville, police pulled over a driver of an Acura Integra for not wearing his seat belt. The driver had been cooking meth in the back seat, which, if disturbed, could have created a 3-foot-high flame, Doraville police said.

And in March, Conyers police stopped the driver of a Chevrolet Blazer that was swerving in its lane. In the trunk, they found two 20-ounce plastic beverage bottles with their contents bubbling like a grade-school science experiment.

This is the "one-pot" or "shake-and-bake" method — the type of production typically discovered in rolling meth labs. It makes only enough of the drug for personal use, but the equipment is easier to transport and harder for police to detect.

Cooking methamphetamine using the one-pot method requires no heat source, just a plastic soda bottle and the right ingredients of everyday items, such as cold medication.

"You're going to see a lot more of these little things," Carson said, holding up a photograph of two muck-filled bottles.

Vehicles are not an integral part of the one-pot process. They just happen to be where many meth labs are found.

At the same time, plenty of meth is still being produced in houses and outbuildings, said Jack Killorin, who directs a federal anti-drug task force in Atlanta.

"It becomes notable in vehicles because people observe it, and it is in the community," he said.

In the United States, Mexican drug cartels are still the largest supplier of meth.

The ramp-up in local production is because of the growing popularity of the one-pot method — and because of an increase in pseudoephedrine "smurfing" operations.

In smurfing operations, groups of people go from pharmacy to pharmacy, using stolen or false identification to amass large quantities of the medication.

They do this to circumvent a federal law that limits the amount of pseudoephedrine that can be purchased by a single person and requires the purchaser to show identification.

The recent upswing in domestic meth production is not coincidental. It is a direct result of Mexico's decision in 2007 to outlaw the use and trade of pseudoephedrine, Killorin said.

Pseudoephedrine, commonly marketed as the cold medicine Sudafed, is one of the main ingredients used to cook meth. After pseudoephedrine became illegal, production on the other side of the border slowed for a time. However, Mexican cartels have since found ways to produce meth with a different raw material.

The new Mexican meth is less pure and therefore less desirable for crank addicts, which is why more American users are manufacturing their own supply, Killorin said.

And the implications are felt far beyond those who use the drug.

In Conyers, for instance, police estimate that 60 percent to 70 percent of all the property crimes are committed by people trying to fuel their meth habits.

The main drug problem in the region used to be crack. Now illicit use of prescription drugs and methamphetamine have become the main concern for police.

"It's like we woke up one day, and we got this new drug," Carson said. "And it is the nastiest thing out there."

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